The Rise and Decline of the American "Empire": Power and its Limits in Comparative Perspective

June 14, 2012

W.C. Sellar and R.J. Yeatman's classic 1930 interpretation of history, 1066 and All That, concludes by saying that after the Great War "America became Top Nation and history came to a full stop". Certainly the US became the dominant power of the Cold War years. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and its "Empire" around 1990, the US looked like the solitary superpower in a unipolar world system.

Part of Geir Lundestad's approach to the question of whether the US' sphere of direct influence or domination can rightly be characterised as an empire consists of a quantitative measurement of its resources - human, natural, industrial or military - as the most obvious elements of national power. A second approach is to assess the degree and nature of the power exercised by the imperial centre over its various subject components: how has US leadership of its Western European allies, for instance, been comparable with its authority over, say, the Philippines, and is it accurate to describe the whole ensemble as an empire? Lundestad's answer to this last question is evident from the way he always, when referring to the US, puts the word "Empire" in quotation marks.

A third way of assessing whether we are dealing with an empire is to carry out a systematic comparison of its resources and general prospects of exercising power with those of any potential competitors among the other states in the international system. Looking at the US' position in the second half of the 20th century and at the start of the 21st, Lundestad identifies four power centres that might reasonably have aspired to this status. These four are the powers that Henry Kissinger included, along with the US, in his ruminations of 40 years ago on a "pentapolar world": the Soviet Union, Japan, the emerging European Union and China. As each of these players appeared to pose a potential challenge in different time periods, Lundestad deals with them chronologically.

The first to be considered is thus the Soviet Union, whose fortunes during the Cold War period Lundestad recounts as systematically as possible. He freely confesses to the severe difficulties of assessing Soviet strengths and weaknesses during this period because of the acute shortage of reliable statistical and other information (Mikhail Gorbachev himself was kept in the dark about Soviet military spending until he became general secretary in 1985); however, Lundestad has no difficulty in demonstrating that the Soviet economy was distorted and handicapped by "imperial overstretch" - a useful concept that he might have employed more often. The mooted challenge from Japan differed from the Soviet one in being more limited in time (from the 1970s to the 1990s) and essentially economic in character. The EU, again, has posed only a limited challenge. Despite its statistical superiority over the US according to certain indices (including foreign trade and development aid), it has rarely if ever been able to mobilise its considerable resources - economic, diplomatic or military - in support of an agreed large-scale foreign policy project. The EU, like Japan, is thus treated relatively briefly here, whereas China, the last and most ambitious of the potential challengers, receives much more detailed attention. Lundestad portrays China, with its vast resources and expansionist attitudes, as a true superpower in the making.

A more systematic study would have linked the question of what resources "imperialist" states (say, the US) possess with that of how far they can make their "subjects" (say, Israel) obey their will. All the same, the book offers a useful introduction to some key concepts in international relations, particularly for students new to the subject.

The Rise and Decline of the American "Empire": Power and its Limits in Comparative Perspective

By Geir Lundestad. Oxford University Press, 224pp, £25.00. ISBN 9780199646104. Published 8 March 2012

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